“Nostalgia is a form of mourning for a past that never was,” Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou writes in his essay, The Task of the Artist in the Time of Monsters. “When the present obscures the future and undermines the past, artists are diplomats between the world that was, the world that is and the world that is to be.”
A compilation of memories forged in Arkansas and Memphis, Sekou’s latest album, In Times Like These, is a bridge between the past and present. It’s also an inspirational “rally cry” for turbulent times.
“We made the album three weeks after the election,” Sekou explains. “For me, In Times Like These is a rally cry to say that in times like these we need a miracle because of the monsters that we are facing.”
A preacher, musician, author and activist (who made headlines following his arrest during the Ferguson protests), Sekou says he aims for his music to be “medicine in times of struggle.”
“I don’t know another way to be,” he continues. “If I’m singing, I’m going to sing about struggle. If I’m preaching, I’m going to preach about struggle. If I’m going to make a film, I’m going to make a film about struggle. As an author, I’m writing about struggle. And so, at one level, it’s just kind of different venues to display that which is inside of me.”
CASSIUS spoke to Sekou about writing his latest album and what it means to resist during the Trump era.
“Ain’t nobody gonna save us. Martin Luther King is not coming back so we need to stop looking for him. What are the ways in which people are engaging in struggle on their own terms?”
CASSIUS: Tell us about your album that was just released on May 5.
REV. SEKOU: This is my debut solo album. I did an album last year. Rev. Sekou & the Holy Ghost released an album called The Revolution Has Come and then Thirty Tigers, which also is a distribution company. A woman named Anasa Troutman, who manages and discovered India.Arie, is an old friend of mine and we’ve been threatening to do a record together for about a decade.
Anasa negotiated a deal with me with Thirty Tigers, and it’s been a blessing to have an old friend who does this work and understands the system a lot better than I do. Thirty Tigers wanted me to get a producer, so I interviewed a few producers and then I went to see Luther Dickinson and the North Mississippi Allstars. They’re from North Mississippi Hill Country, so there’s a great tradition – Fred McDowell, Otha Turner are Black blues men from that region. Luther and Cody [Dickinson]’s father is Jim Dickinson. Jim Dickinson played with Aretha Franklin and recorded with Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.
We went to a studio in Zebra Ranch which is the storied studio in Coldwater, Mississippi. It’s out in the boons; you gotta hold your cell phone up in the sky to get a signal. And Luther, because this music is in their bones—I said I wanted organs, so Luther went and got Charles Hodges, and Charles Hodges has played on 25 Golden Platinum records. He played on Al Green’s “Love and Happiness.” There’s a guy named AJ Ghent. He plays steel guitar. His grandfather introduced steel guitar to the domination in the United House of God and he’s one of the greatest steel guitarists of this generation.
I was really blessed. Luther’s been nominated six times for Grammys. Everybody on the rhythm section has either won or been nominated for Grammys, and they were extremely patient with me. Not one attitude in the studio. Not one argument. It was something about playing with professionals, and in that recording session I became a musician. I was an activist who sang up until that point or a preacher who sang up until that point, but in December 2016, for three days, they made me a musician.
C.: Even though you say you didn’t become a musician until then, you can tell music is something you’ve always been very passionate about. But you’re also a pastor, an author, an activist, and now—a recording artist. What called you to do all of these things?
RS: I grew up singing, so I actually went to college on a vocal performance scholarship. I started at a small historically Black college called Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tennessee. I performed in operas. Our choir performed with Ray Charles, and so in my teens I actually thought I would be singing in opera or on broadway, then I got trained at the Highlander Center when I was 19 and I ain’t been writing since. It was also at 19 that I met Stokely Carmichael, Kwame Ture, who I was mentored by and received my name from. And so I became an organizer and so it’s really me returning to my first love.
C.: You had a song titled “We Comin’” which was named a modern Civil Rights movement by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Can you talk a little bit about how your music and other occupations intersect with your activism?
RS: I don’t know another way to be. If I’m singing, I’m going to sing about struggle. If I’m preaching, I’m going to preach about struggle. If I’m going to make a film, I’m going to make a film about struggle. As an author, I’m writing about struggle. And so, at one level, it’s just kind of different venues to display that which is inside of me. In all of that work as a preacher, pastor, organizer, author, my highest aspiration is to be an artist because I believe the task of the artist is to provide the people medicine in times of struggle.
C.: This makes me think of the title track of your album that was just released, In Times Like These. Talk to me a little bit more about the inspiration behind it and where you were mentally when you were writing it.
RS: We made the album three weeks after the election. If the election of President Obama signified the beginning of an era, the election of Trump signified the end of an era, and so we were in new political terrain. It made me consider “What is this historical moment? What is at work given not only what we see in terms of the election of Trump—the near election of Le Pen in France, the rebellion among students in South Africa, there’s a struggle among people of African descent in Papua, New Guinea—when you look around globally there’s a fundamental crisis. For me, In Times Like These is a rally cry to say that in times like these we need a miracle because of the monsters that we are facing. Ain’t nobody gonna save us. Martin Luther King is not coming back so we need to stop looking for him. What are the ways in which people are engaging in struggle on their own terms? I wanted to attempt to capture that.
While I was recording the record, I went to Arkansas and stood at my grandmother’s grave while I was recording it. I went and visited my family in Arkansas so both “Resist” and “In Times Like These” kind of remind me of the kind of cop shows of the 70s [and] the kind of music that you would hear coming out of the television when we had three or four channels and an antenna. At one level, the album is about this moment, but particularly “Resist” and “In Times Like These” are part of the sonic landscape of my childhood. The way [the horns open] on “In Times Like These,” that reminds me of my childhood, which you would hear as theme songs for television programs.
C.: Speaking of resistance, there’s a discussion surrounding the idea that millennials and Gen-Xers are not civically engaged because the 24-hour news cycle has drained them. Do you think that’s so, and if yes, how do we change that?
RS: I actually think that’s a falsity. I just don’t think that’s true. I just think that the young people are organizing in a way we haven’t seen. I would argue, the most significant [thing] that has come out of Black Lives Matter is the bailing out of mothers for Mother’s Day. That’s the most significant thing that we’ve done in our struggle, in addition to being to being in the streets, in addition to getting arrested, in addition to Books and Breakfast. That’s important work. Young people are active all over the country. The problem is when people are not active, what they really mean is you don’t have young people lining up behind a charismatic male leader. That’s what they mean. And them days is over.
C.: What are plans going forward now that you’ve released this album?
RS: I’m on tour with the North Mississippi All Stars. We’re doing 20 dates—17 cities over the next month and then I’m doing 4 dates with them in the UK. Also, two of my books are being republished this summer: Urban Soul and God’s Gaze & Guns. And then I have a book coming out in the fall called In the Time of Monsters. It’s based on my essay “The Task of the Artist in the Time of Monsters.”